BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – A defiant Saddam Hussein pleaded innocent to charges of murder and torture as his long-awaited trial began Wednesday with the one-time dictator arguing about the legitimacy of the court and scuffling with guards.
The first session of the trial lasted about three hours, and the judge ordered an adjournment until Nov. 28.
Saddam and his seven co-defendants could face the death penalty if convicted for the 1982 massacre of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail. They are being tried in the former headquarters of Saddam’s Baath Party.
After presiding judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin, a Kurd, read the defendants their rights and the charges against them he asked each for their plea. He started with the 68-year-old ousted dictator, saying, “Mr. Saddam, go ahead. Are you guilty or innocent?”
Saddam replied quietly, “I said what I said. I am not guilty,” referring to his arguments earlier in the session.
Amin read out the plea, “Innocent.”
The confrontation then became physical. When a break was called, Saddam stood, smiling, and asked to step out of the room. When two guards tried to grab his arms to escort him out, he angrily shook them off.
They tried to grab him again, and Saddam struggled to free himself. Saddam and the guards shoved each other and yelled for about a minute.
It ended with Saddam walking independently, with the two guards behind him, out of the room for the break.
Many Iraqis and others across the Middle East were glued to their television sets to watch the first-ever criminal trial of an Arab leader.
The proceedings were aired with about a 20-minute delay on state-run Iraqi television and on satellite stations across Iraq and the Arab world. However, technical quality was poor, with the sound cutting out frequently and the picture going blank several times.
A too-busy President Bush did not watch, even as the White House hailed the trial as a key step in Iraq’s transition to a functioning democracy.
“Saddam Hussein is facing Iraqi justice,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “The trial is a symbol that the rule of law is returning to Iraq. We hope this trial will help bring some closure for the Iraqi people to their country’s dark past.”
The Dujail trial is the first of about a dozen cases prosecutors intend to bring against Saddam and members of his inner circle in an attempt to hold them accountable for a 23-year regime that saw tens of thousands of Iraqis killed and imprisoned.
Other cases likely will tackle his regime’s Anfal Offensive that killed 180,000 Kurds, a poison gas attack on Halabja that killed 5,000 and a crackdown on rebellious Shiites and Kurds in 1991.
The five-judge panel will both hear the case and render a verdict. The identities of the judges have been a tightly held secret to ensure their safety, though Amin’s name was revealed just before the trial began. The courtroom camera repeatedly focused on him, without showing the others.
At the trial’s opening, Saddam stood and asked the presiding judge: “Who are you? I want to know who you are.”
“I do not respnd to this so-called court, with all due respect to its people, and I retain my constitutional right as the president of Iraq,” he said. “Neither do I recognize the body that has designated and authorized you, nor the aggression because all that has been built on false basis is false.”
Amin, a Kurd, tried to get Saddam to formally identify himself but Saddam refused and finally sat. Amin read his name for him, calling him the “former president of Iraq,” bringing a protest from Saddam, who insisted he was still in the post.
Later, Amin read the defendants their rights and the charges against them, and told them they face possible execution if convicted. Saddam slumped low in his chair and near the end of the hearing asked for a yellow pad, on which he wrote some notes.
The chief prosecutor, Jaafar al-Mousawi, then outlined the case, saying Saddam was closely involved in planning retaliation after an assassination attempt against him as he drove through Dujail in July 1982. Al-Mousawi said the prosecution had videos of Saddam interrogating four Dujail residents soon after his motorcade was fired on.
Saddam countered that videotapes should not be admissible as evidence because they could be altered or faked. The judge did not respond.
Prosecutors have said they brought the Dujail case against Saddam first because they had more solid evidence, including documents and videos.
Saddam’s lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, responded by asking for the names of witnesses who will testify for the prosecution. Amid said al-Dulaimi could ask the prosecutors for the names but did not say if he would order them handed over.
Saddam and his fellow defendants were seated in three rows inside a pen made of white iron slats, a scene that made them look more like worshippers in the pews of an Anglican church.
The bars, neck high as the men sat on black chairs, rose as a symbol of their status as some of the most-wanted criminals in the world and the kind of obstructed view of the world they will have for the rest of their lives.
Starting the session, Amin called the defendants into the room one by one. Saddam was the last to enter, escorted by two Iraqi guards in bulletproof vests guiding him by the elbow. He glanced at journalists watching through bulletproof glass from an adjoining room. He motioned for his escorts to slow down.
After sitting, he greeted his co-defendants, saying, “Peace be upon you,” sitting next to co-defendant Awad Hamed al-Bandar, former head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Court.
The other defendants include Saddam’s former intelligence chief Barazan Ibrahim, former vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan and other lower-level Baathist civil servants. Most were wearing traditional Arab robes and complained they were not allowed to have headdresses, so court officials brought out red headdresses for them. Many Sunni Arabs consider it shameful to appear in public without the checkered scarf, tied by a cord around the forehead.
Wednesday’s combative atmosphere evoked images of the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of committing atrocities during his rule in the Balkans in the 1990s. Like Saddam, Milosevic has argued with judges and denied the court’s legitimacy.
The difference is that Milosevic is being tried at a U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, while Saddam is facing a tribunal of his people. The Iraqi tribunal is partly funded by the United States and organized by a government dominated by Iraqi ethnic groups he once oppressed.
The trial is taking place in the marble building that once served as the National Command Headquarters of Saddam’s feared Baath Party. The building in Baghdad’s Green Zone _ the heavily fortified district where Iraq’s government, parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located _ was ringed with 10-foot blast walls and U.S. and Iraqi troops, with several Humvees and at least one tank deployed outside. U.S. soldiers led bomb-detecting dogs around the grounds.
Many Iraqis gathered around TV sets to watch the proceedings.
“Since the fall of the regime, we have been waiting for this trial,” said Aqeel al-Ubaidi, a Dujail resident. “The trial won’t bring back those who died, but at least it will help put out the fire and anger inside us.”
In Baghdad, Shiite construction worker Salman Zaboun Shanan sat with his family at home in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, having taken the day off from work to watch the trial.
When Saddam appeared on television, his wife Sabiha Hassan spit at the screen.
“I hope he is executed, and that anyone who suffered can take a piece of his flesh,” said Shanan, who was imprisoned during Saddam’s rule, as was Hassan and several of their sons.
Across the Tigris River in the mainly Sunni Arab district of Azamiyah, some were embittered by the trial of Saddam, whose regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs who have now lost their power.
“Saddam is the lesser of evils,” said engineer Sahab Awad Maaruf, comparing Saddam to the current Shiite-Kurdish led government. “He’s the only legitimate leader for Iraqis.”
The Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurdish minority have eagerly awaited the chance to see the man who ruled Iraq with unquestioned and total power held to justice.
“I’m very happy today. We’ve prayed for this day for years,” said Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, an anti-Saddam opposition leader in exile for years and now one of the fiercest proponents of the purge of Baathists from the new government.
The night before the trial a bomb went off in a Baghdad square at a statue of Abu Jaafar al-Mansour, the 8th-century caliph who built Baghdad and to whom Saddam frequently compared himself. The blast toppled the bust off its marble pedestal, but no one was hurt.
The world will be watching Saddam’s trial to see whether Iraq’s new Shiite and Kurdish leaders can rise above politics and prejudice and give the former dictator a fair hearing. Human rights group have criticized the government for trying to influence the trial, adding that considerable U.S. logistical and financial aid to the tribunal could lend credibility to charges it will mete out “victors’ justice.”
The court also is operating under its own rules and a 1971 Saddam-era criminal law that some have criticized as not up to international standards.
That law says the judges can issue a guilty verdict if they are “satisfied” by the evidence.
Saddam was ousted after U.S.-led forces swept into Iraq in March 2003 and marched in to Baghdad. He fled the capital and was on the run for nearly eight months until American forces found in him hiding in a cellar in a rural area outside his hometown of Tikrit north of Baghdad on Dec. 13, 2003.
He has been held since in a U.S. detention facility at Baghdad International Airport.
If a death sentence is issued in the Dujail case, it is unclear whether it would be carried out regardless of whether Saddam is involved in other trials.
Associated Press reporters Mariam Fam, Omar Sinan, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sameer N. Yacoub and Thomas Wagner contributed to this report.